Dark, brutal and broad—that’s how I like my comedy. I like fearless movies that don’t pull punches. It perfectly describes “Catfight,” the new film from Onur Tukel, who Wilmingtonians were lucky enough to have living and creating in the Port City for many years before he took his talents to New York. Now, he has become one of the most interesting independent filmmakers working. If anyone hasn’t seen some of his more inspired fare, like “Summer of Blood” or “Applesauce,” check them out. “Catfight” is his most high-profile movie to date and showcases Tukel’s madcap skill set.
Veronica (Sandra Oh) is an uptown socialite who enjoys an enviable, kept existence. She’s the kind of removed-from-reality housewife who enjoys sipping wine and dispensing terrible advice. When her son shows a penchant for drawing, she tries to steer him away from doing what he loves in favor of a more stable career. Ashley (Anne Heche), a former college friend of Veronica, is in a far-less attractive position; a struggling artist, trying to achieve relevance. Life hasn’t quite turned out as she hoped. She has a loving partner and plans to raise a family, yet artistic success and respect have eluded her.
Ashley ends up serving food at a posh party for Veronica’s husband. Their reunion is the kind of awkward princess-and-pauper scenario where pleasant platitudes are quickly abandoned in favor of an epic teardown of each other’s lives. Veronica sees Ashley as a spectacular failure who accomplished none of her goals. Ashley thinks Veronica is a laughable beard for her obviously gay husband. But words aren’t enough to settle this feud, so that’s when the beatdown begins. After the fight, Veronica ends up in a coma for two years. She wakes up to a cruel reality without her family or fortune.
While Veronica has descended from riches to rags, Ashley has become an overnight sensation. Her stark and violent artwork has become popular in a world where the “war on terror” escalates. She’s a hit in the art world, respected by her peers and is pregnant. Everything she ever wanted is coming to fruition. However, she handles her newfound fame with the grace of a coked-up rhino and becomes the same vapid vessel of entitlement that Veronica once was.
“Catfight” is a pugilistic tango of a feature film. It dances back and forth between bits of broad comedy and cutting social satire. The “trading places” concept isn’t necessarily new, but Tukel does such a brilliant job of taking sharp turns and steering clear of expectations. The story deliciously traverses its second act with a heartbreaking reversal of fortune that feels tragic and ludicrous simultaneously.
I’m always impressed with filmmakers who can hold together an outlandish premise and make it feel tangible. On paper the plot of this movie sounds mental, but onscreen it feels plausible. Much credit is shared with Heche and Oh, who deliver beautiful and believable performances in a movie that could have devolved easily into a cartoon.
The story seems to exist in the same universe as John Waters’s films. There’s a wonderfully eccentric vibe to the movie—a playfulness that helps bring a strange balance to the painful pugilism dished out by its main characters. The fights are long, and the rival “They Live” in terms of length and destruction dispensed. Like their performances, Heche and Oh go for broke and are as humorous as they are unsettling.
“Catfight” is a delight—a dark, painfully funny comedy that manages to be more than just a shock film. There are real characters dealing with loss and crushing blows that life and people are capable of delivering.